Is That What They Were Doing With All That Davening?; Or, Let’s Talk About ‘Eyes Wide Open’

Aaron: So I recently saw (for a second time) the Israeli film Eyes Wide Open, about a sad, middle-aged Orthodox butcher, Aaron, who takes over his father’s shop after he dies. He hires a young guy, Ezri, who comes into the shop rather lost, as his assistant. It turns out that kid was kicked out of Yeshiva for being gay (and doing whatever gay Yeshiva students do there). Aaron begins to get attention and condemnation from the community over having Ezri in his store. Meanwhile the two begin to have a powerful emotional connection and start having sex, which makes it harder for him to get rid of the kid – because their relationship is better than his marriage with his wife.

If there’s one thing about some of the new Israeli cinema I’ve seen recently (My Father My Lord, Lebanon, Beaufort) is that the directors make very efficient and tight movies with some very powerful imagery. Here the story is very small and quiet. The story is not about the butcher coming out as a big flaming queen, but slowly falling in love with this interesting young man. The sex scenes between them are very short and gentle (heh heh heh), but convey the point in a short time span (whereas most Western directors would probably hover over them in bed and make the scene more dirty).

I really like the use of color – or use of no color. Clearly we associate Orthodox Jews with black and white, but the butcher shop is totally stark white and there’s a washed-out quality to everything. It makes you appreciate later when Aaron confesses to his rabbi that the young guy brought him back to life. There’s clearly a visual significance to this.

I think I didn’t like how Ezri shows up out of nowhere and ultimately recedes back into nothingness. It was a bit too random and a bit too writerly for me. I like the humanity and naturalness of the film, but these parts felt a bit forced (by the writer).

Alex: You know why I love you, Aaron? Because you never miss a chance for a dick joke, no matter how profane. I can’t wait till we blog about a movie that features a lot of Muslim prayer. What with all that bowing all the way to the ground and whatnot…

I agree completely about the spareness of Eyes Wide Open‘s style. Not only is it quiet and careful — the camera observes, it doesn’t intrude — but it’s remarkably confident for a first-time director.

They keystone of this film is Zohar Shtrauss, who plays Aaron. It’s a virtual master class in film acting: he does almost nothing but conveys a complex and troubled inner life. (He’s also very good, in a smaller role, in Lebanon, a movie I wish I’d liked more. It’s Israel’s answer to Das Boot, but its heavy-handedness overshadows the claustrophobic intensity.)

I wasn’t bothered by Ezri’s mysterious appearance and disappearance, but there is certainly a sense of the operatic in this movie that sits uneasily alongside its spare naturalism. I’m thinking particularly of the final scene, which is a beautiful and heartrending image, but narratively it strikes me as a little wishy-washy. (Oh, that may be my best pun in the short history of this blog.)

Aaron: Wishy-washy! Ha! I get it!

Yes – operatic is the word that I was looking for. I actually thought that last scene was properly poetic, if a bit heavy-handed. It didn’t bother me all that much, but I could imagine that if it had been in an American movie I would have hated it. I guess I just like Jews that much! (Because American film people aren’t Jewish… get it?! Oy vey.)

Alex: Well, and the only movies American film people make about Jews are Holocaust movies. Eyes Wide Open is not only a moving love story but a rare cinematic glimpse into the lifestyle of Hassidim.

Of course, we are both Semitophiles.

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About Aaron & Alex

We're two highly opinionated, movie-going, liberal, cynical, (single) New York Jews who like to bitch about movies.
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